Marianna's Supergrain and Superseed pastas

BBQMarianna Pentek has faced health scares with courage. She had the determination not only to change her life and diet completely, but to found Nomad Health so that she and her husband had something delicious to eat! She talks to Hannah Lawrence about coeliac disease, diabetes, and sounding like Darth Vader.

When Marianna collapsed at university, she was told to expect the worst: “No-one knew what was wrong with me. But my family is riddled with cancer; my grandfather died of it, my grandmother has serious cancer issues, my uncles and aunties all had it. So when I collapsed out of nowhere, it was really serious. They thought I had brain cancer. I had all the scans you can imagine; MRIs, x-rays, and all the blood tests.”

Eventually the tests showed that, while Marianna happily didn’t have cancer, she did have several serious conditions: “First of all, I found out that I was allergic to everything artificial, coupled with severe asthma. Preservatives, fillers, emulsifiers. And then they realised I had severe gluten intolerance. I was coeliac; I’d always had headaches, horrible diarrhoea and stomach pains, and suddenly it all made sense. But then they also found out I had polyps in my sinuses and my forehead; they were filling up the cavities in my face. They often occur when you’re allergic to something, don’t realise, and keep eating it anyway: your system reacts.”

Marianna had to change her diet completely: “I could eat vegetables and meat, and that was it. But I was a vegetarian! No chocolate, no sweeties. I stopped eating everything I reacted to.” Then, there were three operations on her sinuses and forehead, to try and get rid of the polyps.

Her husband Keith was also struggling with his health: “When we met, his diabetes was out of control. He was 4½ stone heavier than he was now, he was quite chubby, and we realised it couldn’t be healthy for him. He had to take 100 units of insulin in the morning, in the afternoon and at night-time, that’s 300 units a day and his body wasn’t coping.”

But nothing could prepare them for a hideous shock a few months later: “Keith had really low sugar levels. He had a fit and went into a coma. I freaked out because I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to handle the situation. It was terrifying. You love somebody so much and then you think they’re dying in front of you.”

Marianna and Keith realised that “we have to change our lifestyle. I was a vegetarian back then, and he said ‘OK, I’m going to go on your diet.’ We knew that food was our biggest challenge, so we decided that instead of seeing it all negatively, we should instead take whatever positives we could from the situation. The more I thought about it, the more opportunities I could see - this didn’t have to be a disaster at all, it could be an adventure. So, we changed our lifestyle and since then he’s lost five stone and his diabetes is under control. He used to take 300 units of insulin per day, now it’s 48 units a day.”

Keith’s new-found health meant the couple could do more: “We started going for walks, and as he found it easier and easier, he got happier and happier! We love going hiking now. I even took him rock climbing one time, and while he hates heights, he was thrilled to see that he could do it.”

And it didn’t just stop there: “We love doing things together; and we spend our whole lives in the kitchen. So we thought, why don’t we try making some food together? That’s good for our relationship and it’s good for his waistline!” They chose to attend a pasta-making course, “even though I’m gluten-free and couldn’t eat it, it just sounded so interesting. The course was amazing, we went home and bought a pasta making machine. Once a month, we’d have friends over and make them pasta and sauce, even though I couldn’t eat it.

“Eventually I said, ‘This isn’t fair, you’re all having fun but I need to eat something as well!’ So, I started to experiment with different flours. First of all, the normal gluten-free flour and it didn’t happen, the mixture didn’t stick together, it wasn’t nice.”

BBQLuckily, Marianna’s mum came to the rescue: “She’s an amazing lady. She’s a real mother hen and she often sends me parcels of things she thinks I need to try. And one day I came home and found she’d sent me some chestnut flour as well as green banana and sorghum flour, which is naturally gluten-free. I tried it, and I was blown away. It was so easy to work with and delicious. We started to use that for pasta. It tasted great! Then we started thinking about our own business and what we could do.

“At the time I was working all hours as a senior contracts manager for a big corporate company. I was constantly exhausted, never at home and it was putting pressure on Keith and I. We’d been planning to have a baby but the lifestyle we were living just wasn’t compatible with a family; most evenings it was 7pm before I even thought about leaving the office. It was time for a change, and our new dietary requirements made that change possible. Looking back now, it seems a little crazy, but I left the corporate world behind in favour of a new way of life. We sold everything and started again so I could follow a dream.”

Following much tinkering and tasting, the result was Marianna and Keith’s range of SuperGrain and SuperSeed pastas. This includes their extraordinary green banana penne and fusilli, as well as other pastas made from ingredients like flaxseed, sesame, sorghum and millet.

For such a young company, they’re certainly making waves, and recently won a producers’ bursary from BBC Good Food. Marianna’s clearly proud of her pastas: “As Keith’s diabetic, it was really important that everything had to have a really low sugar level. They’re gourmet, gluten-free pastas, so easy to use, and they taste great. They’re really high in protein and fibre, while being low carbohydrate and having almost zero sugar—we’re certified by Sugar Wise, and Coeliac UK have also certified us.”

BBQThe products are already popular; Keith and Marianna have already had to move to bigger premises, “and we’ve sold almost 6,000 bags of pasta in almost 6 months, I was so chuffed with that!” And this success means that they’re able to give something back via the Buy1Give1 scheme: “Each bag of pasta you buy will feed a child for a day, or provide blindness prevention.”

Marianna hopes that other coeliacs and diabetics can benefit from their experiences:

“Maybe with everything we’ve learned from his illness and mine, maybe there are other people out there who are having the same sort of problems, and we can share with them what we’ve learned. Also, I really hope to help change the way people eat in the UK - there are so many processed foods here, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I believe that you are what you eat and the changes my body has experienced since starting to eat clean have been phenomenal. Life is better than ever. I’m probably working just as long hours but I manage my own time now, and it’s great to do something I am genuinely passionate about.

I always say that Keith and I are the perfectly imperfect couple and that’s what makes it work. I am grateful for the way things have happened and it’s now a major motivation for me to create clean, healthy artisan premium pasta for everyone with the highest quality of ingredients, strictly non-GMO, naturally nutritious and gluten / wheat free! Everyone deserves a healthy nourishing meal that are easy and quick, colorful and simply delicious. When I ate food with emulsifiers and fillers in, I’d have a severe reaction and get really wheezy. Since I’ve been eating clean, healthy nutritious food, it helps me to lead a full, energetic life without losing my breath and sounding like Darth Vader!”

You can buy the SuperGrain and SuperSeed range of pasta from Nomad Health.

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